Dogs that act like cats, and 'sing'

Weird creatures

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In the mountain rain forests of the central highlands of New Guinea, a big island just north of Australia, native dogs climb trees and "sing." Known as New Guinea Singing Dogs, they are considered the world's rarest canine breed. Fewer than 1,000 remain.

Eight of these creatures are being studied by Mark Feinstein, a professor at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. The dogs are 18 to 24 inches tall and weigh up to 30 pounds. Their eyes have a reflective layer and are slanted like a wolf's. When light strikes their eyes, they glow greenish-yellow - like a cat's. No other known dog species has this quality, Professor Feinstein says.

He has a theory that the dogs are arboreal. That means they live in trees. The dogs are rarely seen in the wild, and never (so far) in a tree. But Feinstein has seen one of his dogs pursue a squirrel by shinnying partway up a tree, gripping the tree between its paws.

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The dogs' native habitat has steep mountains, rocky ledges, and lots of fallen trees and underbrush. The dogs have to be good climbers to survive.

The dogs have other "catlike behaviors." One is to rub their heads against objects. Cats do this to scent-mark their territory. This may be why the dogs do it, too.

What the professor finds equally intriguing is the dog's ability to get through very small spaces - just like a cat. Unlike felines, however, the dogs have no whiskers to help them determine if an opening is too small. They seem to be able to get through any opening into which they can fit their heads.

The dogs make strange noises. It's "almost a chuckling, undulating howl," Feinstein says. The howl is unlike that of a wolf or a coyote. (To listen to the dogs' "songs," call up this article on our Web site, csmonitor.com, and click on the audio link. You can call up this article directly at: www.csmonitor.com/durable/2000/02/01/fp22s2-csm.shtml. Again, click on the audio link to hear the dogs.)

But while Feinstein says the dogs are "somewhat gentle with adults," he does not recommend them as house pets. They are not easily housebroken and are fierce, remarkably efficient hunters.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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